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22.02.05 Heighway/Bryant (eds.), The Romanesque Abbey of St Peter at Gloucester

22.02.05 Heighway/Bryant (eds.), The Romanesque Abbey of St Peter at Gloucester

In a pithy and probing one-liner found in John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon (c. 1159)--albeit generously credited to Bernard of Chartres--the then-Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury was moved to ask himself: are we but dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants? If it were not for the numerous, arresting, and often highly idiosyncratic embellishments of later builders, the Romanesque abbey of St. Peter in Gloucester (begun 1089) would likely occupy a more prominent place in our canon(s) of early medieval art and architecture. Carolyn Heighway, a consultant archaeologist at Gloucester Cathedral for nearly thirty years, and Richard Bryant, a specialist in archaeological recording and illustration, introduce this book with a telling dedication to its very first masons. The crux as well as the clear and commendable achievement of their research is to demonstrate that, even if the Gothic powers-that-were did indeed aspire to build above (or beyond) their predecessors, that isn’t to say that they didn’t still see further because, rather than in spite, of their ancient Norman supports.

The overwhelmingly deft and rigorous analyses that make up the following chapters--on the eastern arm, the transepts, the tower, the nave, the claustral buildings and their respective survivals in polychromy and carving--are presented in unambiguous fashion. The somewhat terse introduction notwithstanding (which perhaps could have made more of the building’s socio-cultural context, to the likely benefit, not least, of non-specialist readers), we begin with Abbot Serlo’s inaugural works on the crypt, the choir, the ambulatory, and the tribune gallery. The academic estates of Richard Morris and, especially, Christopher Wilson loom large as these early grounds are laid. There will no doubt be a response, if not a rebuttal necessarily, to the assessments of the high vault in the choir; whether or not it included a clerestory; the several problems of the transepts; the stair turrets; the passages; and the (sometimes-)unusual correspondence of the north and south sides.

Largely in order of chronology, the next encounter is with the nave before we move on in succession to the cloister, the chapter house, the dorter and the abbot’s lodging. As with the above, and to the particular credit of the authors, ample room is often left for doubt and equivocation, even to the extent of the provision--more than once--of competing reconstructions. Where greater surety can be inferred, however, it is: the long-contested placing and arrangement of the Romanesque west end (having, in all likelihood, been dismantled when the two westernmost bays of the nave were refashioned in the 1400s) now appears settled on a two-towered façade, not unlike what was planned at nearby Tewkesbury Abbey (begun after 1087). In addition to an electronic plan survey performed in 2002 by Cartographical Surveys Ltd., the authors’ close scrutiny of these and several other spaces owes a fortunate (and acknowledged) debt to the recent excavations, funded and undertaken by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and Project Pilgrim, in 2017. The collective outcome here is an impressive concentration of plans, diagrams, section/elevation drawings, 3-D presentations, summary narratives and high-resolution photography for what is--relative to its closest and most recent equivalents--a somewhat slender but inexpensive volume.

The concluding chapters on painting, carving, spolia, and decoration are particularly welcome, which is to stress that their inclusion is not merely additive in this case, but an all-too-common oversight in most other such surveys. An afterword on the abbey church’s context, sources, and associations by Malcolm Thurlby--which does go some way to mitigating the aforesaid absence in the introduction--then brings both local and (inter-) national light to bear on what is, in much the same way as polychromy and carving, a typically understudied and foggy world of motive and influence. The final summary of findings, with which Heighway and Bryant resolve the text, situates their position(s) within a broader body of scholarship, reaffirming in the process their unusual tolerance for ambiguity and restraint.

Apropos of its slenderness, in paperback at least, the book’s overlarge dimensions do make for slightly unwieldy handling and--in the several weeks since I was sent it by The Medieval Review--a somewhat floppy disposition on my bookshelf. The structuring of the text, while clear for the most part, would certainly have benefitted from chapter and/or section numbers. The lack of a glossary of terms (by no means an essential or expected feature) and an index (a much more fundamental and surprising omission) might have been worth revising. These, however, are minor objections.

Much of the merit of this work will be measured by the extent to which both public and professional knowledge of the Romanesque abbey of St. Peter in Gloucester is enhanced. There is every reason too that it ought to stand as an example of the most exacting and fastidious standards of architectural/archaeological research. In both instances, as opposed to having the final word, my strong suspicion is that it will inspire many more.